Award will help unlock mysteries of one of Earth's most important organisms

November 10, 2004

A University of Washington marine microbiologist - whose work is of interest not just to oceanographers but to ecologists, climate scientists, biomedical researchers and materials scientists alike - has become a member of a select group of scientists named as Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation investigators in marine science.

Virginia Armbrust, an associate professor of oceanography, will receive $4.1 million during the next five years for her groundbreaking use of molecular tools to study marine phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are single-celled algae and the most abundant photosynthetic organisms in the ocean. They generate about half the oxygen humans breathe, form the base of the food web in the seas and remove the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

With the development of new molecular tools that allow scientists to study species at the DNA level, Armbrust and her colleagues not only study individual phytoplankton, but whole communities and how they interact with their environment and respond to change. Because of phytoplankton's importance in mediating global warming, scientists want to understand how changes in the environment translate into increases or decreases in phytoplankton abundance.

For example, a research article in the Oct. 1 edition of the journal Science, of which Armbrust was the lead author, describes the first ever genomic sequence of one species of diatom, a kind of phytoplankton, and offers surprising insights about the way it may be using nitrogen, fats and silica to thrive the world over. A news article in the magazine quotes a diatom systematist not connected with the paper as saying, "We've just jumped a generation ahead by having this kind of understanding of this genome."

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation launched its 10-year marine microbiology initiative in April, with the goal of attaining new knowledge regarding the composition, function and ecological role of microbial communities in the world's oceans, according to information from the foundation, which is headquartered in San Francisco. Funding strategies include supporting Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation investigators, linking scientists in related fields, establishing intern programs and supporting select research projects that will affect ocean science as a whole. Armbrust is the sixth recipient named.

The award is emerging as one of the world's most prestigious, and certainly the highest paying, of any specifically given to oceanographers, according to Arthur Nowell, dean of the UW College of Ocean and Fishery Sciences. "Ginger is doing work that is absolutely fundamental to so many areas of ocean science and the ocean's impacts on our planet. This award will let her live the dream of all scientists, to truly following her passion and ideas wherever they lead."

Since joining the faculty of the UW School of Oceanography in 1996, Armbrust has supervised 15 undergraduates conducting research in her lab, advised 30 graduate students, twice received her college's Distinguished Graduate Teaching Award and conducted research funded by agencies such as the National Science Foundation, Office of Naval Research and Department of Energy.

"One of the great things about being at the University of Washington is the incredible range of expertise of the colleagues and students that surround me," Armbrust says. "I have received tremendous support from the School of Oceanography in my efforts to conduct interdisciplinary research."

Earlier this year she became co-director of the new Pacific Northwest Center for Human Health and Ocean Sciences, a national research center based at the University of Washington that was established with $6.4 million from the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Environmental Health. The funding is for five years of work to explore the environmental conditions that trigger blooms of harmful algae in marine waters and how these blooms affect public health when contaminated seafood is eaten.

"It is the foundation's goal not only to support the top scientists in marine microbiology like Dr. Armbrust, but to stimulate close collaborations between the Moore investigators to accelerate even further progress in this key area of ocean research, " says David Kingsbury, director of marine science for the foundation.

Armbrust earned her bachelor's from Stanford University in 1980 and her doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1990. She was a postdoctoral fellow in biology at the UW from 1990 to 1995.
For more information:
Armbrust, 206-616-1783,

About the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

The foundation was established in September 2000 by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and his wife Betty to create positive outcomes for future generations. The foundation funds outcome-based grants and initiatives to achieve significant and measurable results. Grantmaking supports the foundation's principal areas of concern: environmental conservation, science, higher education and the San Francisco Bay Area.

University of Washington

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